Monday, 21 June 2010

Leading the nation of shopkeepers - some thoughts


I had planned to write a reminiscence of Ted Heath who I knew briefly when I was a trainee agent in the Bexley Sidcup Conservative Association offices back in 1982. But in thinking about what I would say, I was struck by the fact that not only was the country led by the product of grammar schools from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s but, in the case of the Conservative Party, one formative element in our leaders lay in the retail trade. Heath was jokingly (and not kindly) referred to as “the grocer”, Margaret Thatcher famously grew up over the shop in Grantham and John Major’s Dad sold garden ornaments. It seems so right that the nation of shopkeepers – and nothing wrong with that at all – was finally governed by people who understood the fundamentals of trade. Who had seen first hand the pain and pleasure of retail – the good days when folk queue out the door and those bad, rainy days when the surfaces are spotless but hardly a single sale is made.

In many ways Blair was a return to type for our leaders – expensive education, professional parents and a comfortable berth in the law. And when we look across the current choice – Cameron, Clegg, assorted Milibands, Balls – what we see are more like Blair. Above all, no shopkeepers, nobody with that retail nous. And I worry that this is one reason for our current problems – we’ve had leaders who simply don’t get it, who buy those complicated schemes and involved solutions because they believe themselves clever enough to understand them. But they don’t understand them and they don’t understand the essence of trade – the reality of retail.

Let me explain. I’m a clever chap with plenty of pieces of paper demonstrating my cleverness – degrees, diplomas, certificates and prizes. But my wife is far cleverer because she has the instinctive, visceral appreciation of trade, of business. Kathryn doesn’t need telling why buying and selling, making and consuming, is the essence of human endeavour – she knows that to be true because she was brought up in a trading world. Firstly through import and export to West Africa and then over a general store in a Bradford suburb – Kathryn (as the saying goes) “gets it”.

I like to think that this essential appreciation of trade – drawn from the experience of retail – has been a boon to our government bringing common sense, a sense of the practical and the understanding that your work has to add value to be valued. Leaders like Heath, Thatcher and Major – for all their foibles, faults and failings – were more in tune with the business of Britain that our current crop of pampered hacks.

In the same way that French leaders should have their boots in the soil, British leaders need to have stood behind the counter.


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